1. What was the main motive behind writing the letter?

We had a sense that approval of the SDG framework was likely, and so we wanted to find a way to indicate our concern about the various risks involved if this framework was adopted but not accompanied by a guarantee that spaces for critical conversations and dissent at UBC will not only be protected, but also encouraged. This concern is informed by our own research regarding the (neo)colonial patterns that tend to be reproduced when mainstream frameworks are engaged and critical perspectives are either ignored, silenced, or marginalized. In particular, these patterns tend to – as we note in the letter – reproduce unequal, paternalistic and extractive relationships between dominant and marginalized communities, simplistic solutions to complex problems, and ethnocentric imaginaries of justice, responsibility, and change.

2. Why has UBC chosen to use the SDGs as a framework?

We don’t know the full reasoning behind this choice, but certainly part of it has to do with the Times Higher Education rankings that evaluate the extent to which institutions are assessed against the goals, and the perceived benefits that derive from our high positioning in these rankings. This is made explicit in the UBC Sustainability report to the Board.

In general, universities have taken more of an interest in the SDGs than they did, say, with their predecessors, the MDGs. Equal access to higher education is not only included in the goals (Target 4.3), but HE has also been framed as a central actor in helping to achieve the other SDGs. The reasons behind individual institutions’ decisions to adopt or engage with this framing are no doubt varied, but linking themselves to the goals is certainly one way for universities to assert their public role and relevance in an increasingly globalized world that faces unprecedented social, political, and ecological challenges. We have seen universities not only frame their sustainability efforts around these goals, but also their internationalization efforts (you can see this, for instance, in UBC’s own draft international strategic plan). The question is, how can universities like UBC engage these frameworks in more critical, accountable ways and also make space for multiple different visions of social and ecological responsibility?

3. How does the framing affect Indigenous communities?

Of course, there is much heterogeneity both within and between Indigenous communities. But in general, Indigenous perspectives on both sustainability and development have been ignored. Indigenous critiques have brought attention to the ways that mainstream development not only rests on notions of Western supremacy, but also naturalizes a fundamentally unsustainable extractive economic system that is premised on dispossession, genocide, and environmental destruction. This system treats the earth/’nature’ as a “natural resource,” rather than a living entity and reciprocal relation, as is the case in many Indigenous knowledges and worldviews. Indigenous critiques have also pointed out that mainstream approaches to sustainability fail to address the close relationship between colonial violence and unsustainable practices – and thus, risk reproducing this colonial violence in proposed solutions to sustainability (as has been shown to be the case with regard to carbon trading, geoengineering, etc). Indigenous peoples have articulated their own visions for justice, responsibility, and change, which propose alternative approaches to mainstream sustainability and development, as well as alternative frameworks altogether that do not reference the concepts of sustainability and development.

Thus, with regard to adoption of the SDG framework, we had several concerns with regard to Indigenous communities. First, there is a need to ensure that there will be opportunities for Indigenous communities to voice their perspectives and concerns with regard to proposed institutional approaches to sustainability and development, including perspectives that might be critical of the SDGs and/or UBC’s own programs and policies. Second, we wanted to ensure that this would not reproduce patterns by which these perspectives are solicited but then ignored or tokenistically engaged if they do not align with predetermined institutional priorities, which reproduces neocolonial, extractive, and paternalistic patterns of relationship. Finally, we wanted to invite the institution to attend more closely to the relationships between ecological unsustainability and systemic, historical, and ongoing colonial violence, instead of treating sustainability as merely a question of technological innovation and implementation.

4. What other communities or individuals are at risk by this framing? 

Within mainstream development frameworks like the SDGs, the industrialized West is still framed as a universal model for human progress; development is often framed as primarily a technical issue of transferring supposedly universal (Western) knowledge and technology to non-Western societies and communities who “lack” these so that they can “catch up” to the West. This vision of Western-led progress has been a primary justification for centuries of European colonization and political economic hegemony. Yet, the role of colonization and its afterlife in creating contemporary political, economic, and ecological challenges is generally elided in discussions of development and sustainability. This means both that alternative visions of development and alternatives to development are generally ignored or marginalized, but also that even when countries or communities seek to engage traditional development approaches, they are at a structural disadvantage that has been reinforced over hundreds of years.

As is the case with Indigenous communities, adopting the SDGs without additional framing and infrastructure for critically-informed scholarly deliberation can lead to a further silencing of these perspectives and naturalizing of visions of sustainable development that further marginalize communities that have been subject systemic, historical, and ongoing violence that has negative impacts in ecological, economic, relational, and intellectual dimensions.

5. What do you hope that your critiques to the Board of Governors will accomplish?

We would like to see specific principles, processes, policies, and practices put into place that can help ensure different perspectives about sustainability and development, about the SDGs themselves, and about UBC’s own work in this area, will be welcome from students, faculty, staff, and diverse communities. In particular, we want to protect space for critical perspectives, and ensure that they are taken seriously by the institution, rather than engaged in a tokenistic and conditional way. It is one thing to create a space for people to voice their concerns, but it is another to actually listen, understand, and have their perspectives impact the outcome of a program or policy. Consultation and input-seeking processes can easily become a ‘check-box’ exercise, without meaningful implications, and we want to avoid this. We also want to emphasize that issues of sustainably and inequality are not simply technical problems, they have ethical and political dimensions that are rooted in and informed by larger social and historical contexts. When we focus on technological innovations as the ‘solution’ for sustainability, as the SDGs largely do, we tend to invisibilize the historical and ongoing violences of exploitation and exproproriation that serve as the conditions of possibility for economic growth, as well as the ecological limits of the planet, and foreclose other possible responses.

6. Ideally, what alternatives do you propose instead of using an SDG framework?

Often when one offers a critique of a particular approach, one is pressed to offer a pre-fabricated alternative approach in its place. But there is no perfect framework; each of them is rooted in different assumptions and investments, and each offers different gifts and has different limitations. Particularly when it comes to issues of both sustainability and development, we are looking at incredibly complex, multi-layered matters for which there are no quick fixes, simple solutions, or checklists. We would like to see an approach to sustainability that takes seriously the role of complexity, uncertainty, and inequality in the problems we face.

We would also like to see the university engaging with a range of different perspectives about sustainability (and development), in particular those perspectives that have been systemically silenced or ignored by powerful institutions, including Indigenous, racialized, and otherwise marginalized communities and thinkers. Engaging with these perspectives might help to deepen and pluralize existing institutional approaches to social and ecological responsibility. We would like to see the institutions’ approach to sustainability go beyond mainstream approaches that continue to prioritize capitalist economic growth, the cost of which is not only further ecological destruction, but also further exploitation and expropriation. We would like the university and members of the university community to consider their own role in our dominant, unsustainable and unethical global political economic system, so that we all see ourselves not only as part of the solution, but also as part of the problems we seek to address.